The justification for that assessment does not merely arise from the emphatic manner in which the Spaniard exerted his authority over a distinguished field on the last day to win the Volvo PGA Championship at Wentworth a fortnight ago; and it is not because he at present occupies the top position in the European Order of Merit. Olazabal goes to Oakmont, Pennsylvania, having already achieved three victories this season; Greg Norman and Nick Price, who have each won twice, are the only other multiple winners from the 40 tournaments so far completed in Europe and the United States.
The game may lack a dominant figure - a verdict reinforced by the statistic that the last 14 major championships have been won by 14 different golfers - but the overall effect is to indicate that Olazabal is living with, indeed getting the better of, some fast company these days. Distinctly, he does it at his own pace.
In golf, as in tennis, the accumulation of vast riches by talented young people can be an end in itself. Not so with Olazabal. 'If I play well, the money will look after itself,' is his philosophy. He is 28, and while he is old enough to realise that he is affected by the same constraints of mortality as the rest of us, he is adamant that his God-given talent to play the game - an ability honed in prosaic fashion with meticulous and laborious practice - should not entice him to pursue a relentless search for lucre before his gifts succumb to the ravages of time.
As always, he has declined an invitation to the Johnnie Walker World Championships in Jamaica in December. He is unlikely to open his 1995 campaign before February, thereby spurning the opportunity to compete in other rich tournaments in Dubai and the Far East, where the promoters would be prepared to pay dearly for the privilege.
The two main months of winter are precious to Olazabal - set aside for hunting with his father and playing golf with his friends in the French Basque country. His win at the Masters means he is more likely to maintain that outlook rather than change it.
In an age when the phrase 'burn-out' is appropriately applied to precocious sportsmen and women with dispiriting regularity, Olazabal's well-rounded approach to the non-financial imperatives of his life is refreshing and surely nourishing for his career. His appeal in the commercial marketplace is such that Mark McCormack's International Management Group has made countless offers - 'more than you have fingers on your hands', as Olazabal puts it - to sign him as a client.
His abiding concern to preserve the sanctity of his personal life is such that he has resisted every blandishment. Seve Ballesteros declared at the last Ryder Cup - with what one might term premature zeal or great prescience - that 'Chema (the Basque diminutive for Jose Maria) is the best player in the world'. When his young compatriot went at least some way towards fulfilling the eulogy with his victory at Augusta, Ballesteros told Olazabal's manager, Sergio Gomez: 'Try to protect this man. He is going to get massive offers.'
The advice was not needed, but it will be heeded. Until as recently as February, the two things from which Olazabal needed most protection were his own temper - he could be not so much moody as morose on the course - and a lack of consistency in his golf swing. (Whatever he may say to the contrary, he has seldom been anything other than an astonishingly accomplished putter.) A severe reprimand from Gomez's wife, Maite, after he had thrown a club on his seasonal debut in Tenerife brought Olazabal up sharp and reminded him of his promise to eschew the tantrums to which he was susceptible.
Two weeks later, he worked with John Jacobs, who had coached him as a teenager, at the Andalucian Open. Olazabal had a tendency to tilt rather than turn into the backswing, leading to a pronounced reverse-pivot in his action. By moving the ball more towards his left foot at address, he improved his shoulder turn and eliminated his unwanted tendency to take the club back too steeply. Remedying that fault enabled him to acquire the technical proficiency to win the Masters, but assimilating Jacobs's suggestions has not been simple. 'I had lapsed back into my old habits,' Olazabal admitted during the PGA Championship. 'So again we are working on my shoulder turn.' The results were eminently satisfactory.
All round, Olazabal has reached a higher level of maturity lately. The way he managed to remain above the furore surrounding which Spanish course should host the 1997 Ryder Cup illustrated diplomacy rather than indifference. And being paired with the big-hitting Tom Lehman on the Sunday at the Masters was a situation Olazabal might not have handled with such composure in the past. On the Saturday of the last Ryder Cup, he and Ballesteros swapped the order in which they hit when they played Davis Love and Tom Kite for the second time in the foursomes. On the first day they had lost, in part because Olazabal had been coerced into striving for too much length off the tee when competing with Love's prodigious driving. Playing head-to-head with Kite, that temptation was removed. He and Ballesteros duly won.
Olazabal has won 15 times in Europe, three times in the US and twice in Japan since he turned professional in 1985 on the back of one of the most glittering post-war records of any amateur golfer. Born in Fuenterrabia, near San Sebastian, Olazabal won the British Boys', Youths' and Amateur Championships - a unique treble. His US Open record made fairly good reading until he missed the cut in his last two attempts. He tied for ninth in 1989 and tied for eighth in both 1990 and 1991.
That form belied the chief accusation that persists against Olazabal's technique, that he too often struggles for accuracy off the tee to be a serious contender in the most stringent examination of driving in tournament golf. But many players have noticed a change in the way the US Golf Association sets up the contemporary US Open course. 'They are now rewarding the good ball-strikers a little more,' says Nick Price, including Olazabal in that category. 'In times gone by, that wasn't always the case.'
'Sure Chema can win,' Ballesteros says. 'His game is strong enough in all departments. And he will have gained confidence by winning the Masters. That will help him at Oakmont rather than decrease his chances through the pressure of people talking about him trying to win his second major in a row.'
Olazabal agrees with that judgement. 'Winning the Masters took a lot of pressure off me. I no longer have to prove anything to anybody regarding how good I am. But although being the Masters champion can help my attitude on the course - like it did at the PGA Championship - I think the confidence necessary to win the US Open will not come from having won the Masters but from striking the ball well when I get there. Oakmont will be a different time and a different place to Augusta.'
Ten years ago this week, Olazabal was unquestionably the best amateur golfer in Europe. He had just beaten Colin Montgomerie in the final of the Amateur Championship at Formby. Now, as Ballesteros generously opined last September, he may be the best golfer in the world. At least for the moment.
However, that does not mean he will win the US Open. 'From my point of view,' he says, 'going there as Masters champion will not make winning any harder, except for one thing. I will have more demands on my time, for interviews and so on, and I will be very careful not to do too much of that and instead concentrate on my golf and on the golf course. That is enough of a problem at the US Open. I think everyone should understand that.'
The problem is, Olazabal is used to being left to his own devices. In Spain, he can walk down any main street of any city without being pestered for an autograph. He was therefore amazed when he was stopped seven times in Oxford Street, London, while on a fleeting visit last November, by well-wishers seeking confirmation of his identity.
While Olazabal may be a prophet without honour in his own country, although far from an hombre without profit, there is every likelihood that the breadth of his international reputation will continue to be enhanced. Oakmont may witness the next stage of the process.Reuse content